This, News Media, Is What You Look Like
Rather than challenging them with new thought, he mirrors back to them their preconceptions, fuelling their paranoias, and in so doing, personifies the descent in pursuit of ratings that would impact all news media:
Ron: I just don’t know why we have to tell the people what they need to hear. Why can’t we just tell them what they want to hear?
Freddie: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Say that again
Ron: I said, why do we have to tell the people what they need to hear? Why can’t we just tell them what they want to hear?
Freddie: And what do they want to hear, Ron?
Ron: That we live in the greatest country God ever created.
Champ: Damn straight!
Freddie: Made him happy.
Ron: And we should do stories on – on patriots. Cute, funny little animals. Or diets. Why blondes have more fun.
Brian: And serious investigative pieces… about how much ejaculate is on hotel duvets.
Champ: And only the best sports highlights. Home runs, slam dunks, touchdowns. And no soccer.
Brick: I like the wind.
Ron: Brick’s right. People love hurricanes. Tornadoes, earthquakes, floods. We’ll throw Brick right in the middle of it.
What Anchorman 2 is satirising in its return goes beyond just eliciting laughter. In this expansion, from a series of surreal gags to a franchise aware of its own mythos, Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay are no longer merely belittling the dying of a juvenile, patriarchal age; here they are critiquing another pernicious stupidity that has developed in its wake: the degradation of the news media itself, and its drift into reactionary, sensationalist drivel.
As the movie goes on to argue, in its admittedly exaggerated (but sadly not by much) fashion: news itself has become myth. Rather than striving to remain objective, or vowing to interrogate the complexity of the issues upon which it reports, too frequently modern television news broadcasters (and particularly the cable news networks this film specifically attacks) trade in simplified narratives of sensation and spectacle.
The patterns are so commonplace, so engrained, that they become mere variations on familiar themes: tales of good and evil; heroes and bag guys; republican and democrat; celebrities reported upon as either gods walking amongst us or animals on display in a zoo. Action thrills! Outrage! Rumour! Opinion! ynamic weather footage! Shouting heads lost in a vacuum of partisan rhetoric.
Whereas conventional television wisdom was once that if it bleeds it leads (usually with a soothing, feel-good, cat-up-a-tree palate cleanser to round it out), now ‘news’ is a desperate drip-feed of stories made up on the fly, a context-free sprawl of ‘updates’ and ‘this just ins’ and conjecture; journalists scanning twitter feeds and arbitrarily crossing ‘live to the street’ to interview passers-by about what they think. In its move from a researched, digested bulletin to a reactionary, 24-hour race for perpetual exclusivity, modern television news has sacrificed content for controversy, sense for scandal, sanity for sound bites.
So yeah, Ron Burgundy fights a minotaur (and for some reason, the soul-sucking ghost of Stonewall Jackson), because he too has entered this world of myth, and in doing so has potentially doomed us all.
Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?!
And now just let me limber up. Let me stretch. Because I am about to try to justify the impossible: a precocious child in a comedy film.
Because despite being two things that theoretically should never go together (see: Three Men and a Little Lady for more comedy sequel ‘success’), the addition of Ron’s son Walter into this comedy is actually one of the most interesting and revealing additions to the narrative. (And it must be said, despite my cynicism, the actor, Judah Nelson has some hilarious line deliveries. ‘How about we forget about this whole name thing and you go straight to hell,’ was particularly sublime.)
Superficially, Walter appears to be just a cheap attempt by the film to manufacture some cheesy emotional stakes by exploiting a hackneyed father/son dynamic. Ron, as the bad parent, has to try and reconnect with his estranged son. We’re even given a completely arbitrary ticking clock from a screenwriting 101 course: the will-the-deadbeat-parent-make-it-to-their-child’s-little-league-game/school-play/whatever-in-the-final-act-and-in-one-minute-undo-years-of-shaky-parenting race to the finish line (the film even doubles down on the clichés of absentee parenting, having both a recital and a science fair – including corny model volcano, of course).
But this is the mere tip of the iceberg. Anchorman 2 is intentionally overstuffed with such trite narrative dross, ticking off every lazy narrative trope that cinema has recycled for countless generations. It’s a getting-the-old-team-back-together-again road movie; the tale of an office drone who stands up against the injustice of a scheming boss; a Lifetime drama about a man overcoming a debilitating disability; the story of a young child who befriends a misunderstood wild animal. It’s about an interracial couple that overcomes prejudice (pretty much only his prejudice) to find love; a domestic drama where a man has to win back the love of his wife and child; the tale of a guy who sells his soul for fame, and who eventually has to learn humility to regain the love of family and friends.
If it could only have squeezed in a team-of-misfits-overcome-their-personal-problems-to-win-the-big-game’ storyline, it may have filled the entire formulaic cinema Bingo card.
Anchorman 2 parades every filmic convention it can cram into its two hour span not out of idleness (the fact that it can juggle all this at once is quite extraordinary), but because it is making a pointed statement. This, it is saying, is precisely where such simplified clichés belong. Movies are where we can allow ourselves to indulge these lazy impulses toward myth and redundancy; where Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey can be recycled to infinitely dwindling reward; where we can end on the ‘Happily Ever After’ of a white linen beach wedding scene (and shark mauling).
In contrast, news is where we should strive for something significantly more: where there are no easy answers, and people don’t fit into pre-packaged narrative slots. The news is not the place to fall back into lazy convention.
More than just a signifier for this narrative recycling, the appearance of Walter also invites us to dwell a little longer on Ron’s responsibilities, not just as a parent, but as a teacher. Because, Walter – beyond being the source of some intentionally contrived pathos – is a literal representative of the future. He is the next generation of viewers – of thinkers, of contributors to society – who are growing up in wake of this shift toward insipid infotainment.
Indeed, given that this film is set in the past, Walter is theoretically fully grown in the time that we are watching this film in the present. He is, in fact, us. And here he is in the past, as we were, about to be raised by a media that indulges all his worst traits and ignores his best interests – that wills him to be ill-informed, overly-reactive and convinced of his own righteousness.
Ron, until his 11th-hour reformation (and let’s face it, clearly even afterward) is a bad parent, but he’s also a bad medium. He is the literalised embodiment of all that is facile, synergised and co-opted in the news broadcasting realm: the anchorman with a trustworthy baritone and a slick suit, more interested in selling than telling the story, with nothing behind the facade.
Thankfully, at the end of Anchorman 2, inspired by the newfound responsibility he feels toward his son, Ron abandons the freak show style of broadcast news that he has founded. He quits on air, flees the studio, and in so doing, initiates the sequels most iconic and bombastic set-piece: an amplification of the battle of the news teams glimpsed in the first film.
Here, in its final, goofy battle, again trading on its own history, Anchorman 2 goes all out, ramping up the nonsense as high as it can manage. It indulges nonsensical, pandering cameos and call backs – appearances from Jim Carrey, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Liam Neeson, Will Smith, and a transformation effect on Harrison Ford’s appearance that was joyously ramshackle. It’s filled with hockey sticks and ninjas and mortars and Werehyenas and weapons from the future; explosions and minotaurs and boyfriends with psychic powers, all so that it can point and say:
This, news media. This is what you look like.
This is how stupid you appear when you devalue yourself for ratings. When you chase fads and indulge spectacle over substance. Confuse shouting with debate. Conflate wild speculation with reasoned assessment. Sell out your integrity to corporate interest. Indulge rhetoric to manufacture controversy, and chase sound bites devoid of context. You look like bickering, compromised idiots, fighting a ridiculous war amongst yourselves.
And most dishearteningly, it’s not even like McKay, Ferrell and company have to stretch the truth that far. When the real world already has CNN hosting interviews with a will.i.am hologram on election night. When shows like Crossfire stage juvenile squabbling and entrenched bias and try to label it ‘debate’. Whenever Fox News runs their ‘Fair and Balanced’ logo or Glenn Beck is in the vicinity of a chalkboard.
When there are ‘Situation Rooms’ and ‘No Spin Zones’ and people playing ‘Hardball’; when daily memos instruct reporters on how their network’s owners want them to slant their coverage, and hosts regurgitate talking points, unfiltered, from press releases. When stations spend months hunting for scraps of plane debris just to milk a tragic mystery, allow Karl Rove and Donald Trump to spout libellous conjecture, or pretend (whether for or against her) that anything retired, one-time vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin says is still relevant to contemporary political debate.
When such a miasma of redundancy and playacting gravitas continues to spin its endless daily news cycle, it’s hard to see why Ron shouting ‘More Graphics!’, live-narrating a car chase as ‘the pulse of what’s going on in our country right now’, or a having El Trousias, Maiden of the Clouds, trumpet the commencement of a news-war, is in any way far-fetched. Hell, even the scene where Ron, Champ and Brian are smoking crack live on the air is barely an exaggeration.
How many intrepid reporters do we need to see trying out what it’s like to be tasered before its assumed that we, the viewer, understand the process? It might garner record YouTube hits, but is it newsworthy?
Well, you know the old expression: ‘Nope.’
Goodnight and Good Luck
The first Anchorman film was a mocking throwback to a less enlightened time, a period in which women were marginalised and ignored; it’s sequel, however, uses its rampant silliness to point out an arguably even greater idiocy. It’s a satire in its truest sense, depicting, even in its most ridiculous, self-indulgent climax, the willing ignorance that we are happily inflicting upon ourselves.
Because as it turns out, one of the biggest jokes in the film is the one that didn’t have to be at all. As GNN goes live for the first time, and audiences around America look on in bemusement, the two station producers from the first film, played by Fred Willard and Chris Parnell, weigh up how successful this new 24 hour enterprise will be:
Ed: Twenty four hours of news? How are they going to keep coming up with this stuff?
Garth: My guess is they’ll probably be scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Ed: No. I have a feeling they’ll stick with their integrity and only report the news that needs to be reported.
It’s funny; but only because it’s so sad.
If you want pandering, the film itself declares, if you want cheap appeals to emotion, then that’s what movies are for. The news, however, should be held to a higher standard. And so Ferrell, twitching his Ron Burgundy moustache with a jester’s faux gravitas, stares out at the news media and calls it to account, daring broadcasters to remember their charter and to treat both their audience, and the public service with which they are tasked, with respect.
‘Goodnight America,’ he says. ‘And never forget: you deserve the truth.’